Sustainability within the IT industry

“…Two of the most powerful drivers of change within modern economies are the explosion of digital technologies and the shift toward sustainable development. Both require us to rethink the nature of goods and services; both have the capacity to transform the relationship between governments, companies, citizens and consumers.”

James Wilsdon en Paul Miller, Digitale Futures

There is a growing number of companies looking to increase total value by being more sustainable. Ford, IKEA, McDonalds or Nike, for example, are some of the companies that apply sustainability to their business. You may be wondering why? Because sustainability practices are becoming more and more businesslike.

When companies are more focused on sustainability, they focus not only on their economic performance, but also on their social and environmental performance.

It may not be surprising that sustainable business is becoming increasingly economically sensible. All companies and economic systems operate within social and ecological systems. Business value creation has always been influenced by three dimensions (ecological, social and economic) instead of one. Social unrest and environmental problems have consequences for business.

What does sustainability in IT mean?

Sustainability in IT is a term that is most commonly used to describe the manufacturing, managing, using and disposing of information technology in such a way that minimizes the damage done to the environment. This means that this term can have many different meanings, depending on the role you have as a manufacturer, manager or user of IT.

The term ‘sustainable IT’ can be defined as a set of ecologically safe and stable principles that can refer to a long-term perspective for social and economic development. These kind of principles are being realized with a wider range of digital technology implementation.

In recent years, climate change has become an international concern, with many companies trying to cut emissions and ‘do the right thing’. Not only are companies trying to do better for the environment, they are also looking for sustainability strategies to save money, because energy costs are becoming higher and higher.

Sustainability in an organization doesn’t have to mean that a company needs to have a major reorganization, it can also mean that a company makes small adjustments. Information Technology (IT) is estimated to contribute only a small percentage of the global carbon emissions, but it can be a big part of the solution. Solutions that IT can make are for example: data-center optimalization or teleworking. Companies are now also working towards sustainability initiatives across the company in new areas, like paperless billing, construction and facility management or fleet management.

Challenges that companies face are initial costs, where the period before a company sees return on investment can be lengthy. They also might need to re-educate employees about the benefits of sustainability. Companies need to pay good attention to making sure that policies are being followed and company goals are met. If companies are successful in this, the rewards of these efforts can be very significant. Companies can see a decrease in fuel usage and energy costs.

Sustainable IT – 3 key issues

Sustainable IT strategies involve opportunities and challenges that are connect to the IT products and its infrastructure. These opportunities and challenges are:

1. Sustainably designed and made IT products

For IT products there are several environmental and social risks associated through its life cycle, during its manufacturing, usage by consumers and at the end of their life cycle. Buyers of IT can reduce these risk by specifically looking for products with sustainable criteria. These criteria could be for example: Socially responsible manufacturing, ergonomic designs and reduces environmental impact.

Sustainable IT

2. Using IT to reach sustainability goals

Improving the sustainable performance of an organization can be created by using IT systems. For example by being energy efficient or meetings that are being held online can be used as a sustainable IT strategy that can help reduce costs and reduce the environmental impact.

3. Creating a sustainable IT environment

Making IT systems more sustainable are also beneficial to organizations. Look at lowering the energy consumption and reuse and recycle the IT equipment along with ensuring usability can be seen as one of many benefits.

Sustainable strategies

“Sustainable business strategy is the integration of economic, environmental, and social aims into a firm’s goals, activities, and planning, with the aim of creating long-term value for the firm, its stakeholders, and the wider society. This means that strategy is formulated and executed so that the needs of the firm and its stakeholders are met today, while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the natural and resources that will be needed in the future.”

(Lang, 2019)

Try to think of sustainability as the use of IT tools to integrate sustainability into the business. In the past, the use of the internet changed business strategy and operations, but using IT tools for sustainability requires a rethinking of traditional business models.

For example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) are creating new identification labels to track products throughout their life cycle. These tags can rate interactions with the environment and send data to different systems. Information technology can also enable a switch from products to services, for example via computer lease programs. Many applications are already available, but the real integration of sustainability concepts in IT and things are yet to come.

The starting point where a sustainable strategy should be based on is usually the companies mission, vision and set of values. This makes sure that instead of being a side show, the sustainable strategy is built on the companies reason for existing and can create real value by contributing to the business’ growth.

Delivering a sustainable business strategy requires at least the following elements: 

  • Recognizing the strategic context;
    • Look at the global and local sustainability issues that could impact the company.
  • Having a clear sustainability vision;
    • Look at the companies long term vision for environmental, social and economic trends.
  • Having plans for action;
    • Make an implementation strategy with plans and actions.
  • Look at the timescales;
    • Make a timescale that is relevant to the identified trends.
  • Taking care of the communication and reporting.
    • Make sure the communication is consistent and clear so the company ensures transparency.

Supporting organizations

Not only IT is trying to be more sustainable, also other types of organizations work towards making the world better. The United Nations set up 17 goals to transform the world. Any organization trying reduce the damage done towards the environment could work towards meeting these goals. These 17 sustainable development goals (SDG’s) are:

    1. No Poverty
    2. Zero Hunger
    3. Good Health and Well-being
    4. Quality Education
    5. Gender Equality
    6. Clean Water and Sanitation
    7. Affordable and Clean Energy
    8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
    9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
    10. Reduced Inequality
    11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
    12. Responsible Consumption and Production
    13. Climate Action
    14. Life Below Water
    15. Life on Land
    16. Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
    17. Partnerships to achieve the Goal

    Root 8 is working towards changing the world by meeting four of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Conclusion

Technology alone does not make companies more sustainable. IT is however a very important element of a bigger strategy towards making companies more eco-friendly. It can help working towards solid leadership and will improve on communication and corporate goals. It might help to keep some points in mind while working on making the IT in a company more sustainable:

  • Try to involve IT early on in talks about making the company more sustainable. This way it is ensured that the IT will follow in any strategies that are thought off while making the company more sustainable;
  • Analyze and share the best practices of data within the company, make sure that all departments know what is going within the company on so they can keep improving;
  • Create a governance strategy for the company that includes IT and all the other core areas of the business;
  • Measure and publicize the successes within the company, to the clients and to the outside world to ensure transparency;
  • Lead from the top: when executives take a clear stance on sustainability, workers will follow suit.